2022 August-September Analysis Featured

Georgian agriculture sowing a tech revolution

Georgian farmers are taking a closer look at what tech has to offer in the wake of inflation, increased labor costs, and climate change.

Challenged by the task of bringing a tech revolution to Georgia’s agriculture, international donors have taken heart that digital literacy and interest in technology in Georgia is high.

In its look at The Status of Digital Agriculture in Georgia, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) latest report noted the country-wide and “well developed mobile-broadband market,” as well as relative low costs. Good data and its widest possible dissemination have been priorities for FAO, EU, and USAID programs in Georgia – not just information on farming activities, but about domestic and international markets, along with prevailing prices and land ownership. These organizations have also lent backing to the introduction of modern digital technologies and innovations in agriculture.

So crop-spraying drones, precision farming technologies, mechanical harvesting, sub-surface irrigation, weather monitoring, and information gathering systems are increasingly being deployed on farms, fruit and nut orchards, and vineyards across the country by those who can find the financing. Driving the switch to mechanization, says farming information and marketing website EastFruit, is the lack of labor for harvesting and soaring wages. This year’s base wage for blueberry picking, it reports as an example, is starting at GEL 1 per kilo, against last year’s range of GEL 0.65-1.1.

As one horticulture company, Mkisa, which has 200 hectares of almond and blueberry orchards and maize in east and west Georgia, told EastFruit: “We’ve invested in a weather station, plant and soil sensors as well as drones so far. In combination, these tools allow us to plan and manage almost all operations based on precise and live data.” Driven by the labor shortage, said executive director Gigi Gachechiladze, the company will make its almond orchard fully mechanized by next year and plans to buy a harvester for its blueberry fields.

Even smaller farmers are mechanizing. One, owned by Tengiz Dolidze, who has just 20 hectares of hazelnuts in Samegrelo, told EastFruit a few months ago that he thought it was well worth investing in a harvester because an Italian or Turkish machine “can replace 35 workers a day and last 15-20 years.” Otherwise, he would need 20 workers for two weeks for his harvest, and even last year he was paying GEL 50 a day for each of them.

According to Otar Sherozia at the Farmers Union in an interview with EastFruit, almost a third of its commercial hazelnut grower members were already using or planned to invest in a harvester. The cost is around 7,000 to 10,000 euros for an Italian one, less for one from Turkey.

At Georgia’s largest blueberry farm, GeorgianBlue, Rati Morchiladze explains that last year’s season had “shown the inevitability of a shortage of labor,” and as the company expanded, the situation would worsen, hence its move to mechanization.

Drones, robots, and sensors are the solutions being brought in by dairy farmers to increase their production, and these need a high level of digital proficiency. As DeLaval, a world leader in dairy farm technology which has been supplying farmers in Kakheti, explained to farming website Alltech.com: “A glaring gap for dairy farmers is data. Farms, especially large ones, don’t know how much an individual cow eats, how much she drinks, how much she moves, her body temperature, stress levels, sickness, etc. Even individual milk production isn’t always recorded in a consistent manner.”

“Without precise, real-time, smart data, the task of managing individual cows is nearly impossible. But emerging digital technologies can fill that data gap,” DeLaval added.

Robotic milking machines are probably the most well-known application for robots in the dairy industry, increasing efficiency and replacing expensive or unavailable labor. DeLaval’s Voluntary Milking System, for example, can not only cut labor costs, but also allow cows to decide when they want to be milked. Robotic milkers (milkbots) clean the udders, identify the cow’s teats, and milk automatically.

Weather station. Photo courtesy of Mkisa
Fostering land registration and markets is another of the main objectives of the digitalization process in Georgia, and the focus is now on the lagging rural areas. Today, digital registries include not only land records and data on land transfers but also spatial zonings and the digitization of geo-referenced soil data. Government-backed work has been going on in the last few years with one of the leading Bitcoin mining companies, locally based Bitfury, to build a cutting-edge Blockchain land-titling project.

A country-wide agricultural produce price information system is another innovation brought in with government backing, and weekly data is now available on the Ministry of Environment and Consumer Protection website. More tech-sourced data is coming in on the Farming Association’s mobile app Agronavti, which aims to help farmers to market their products by placing them on the platform and linking to a buyer. By downloading the application, a farmer is able to get information on weekly market prices established for agro products, research and innovations in agriculture, local weather forecasts, land auctions, trade fairs, and more.

To help them cope with all this technology and give easy access to online training and an electronic library “packed with training courses and information,” a new digital platform for farmers has been launched with the support of the United Nation Development Programme (UNDP), the Swiss Agency for Development, and the FAO. And there is further online help funded by USAID on two digital platforms for small farmers connecting them to the larger value chains: Kalo.ge and Tracktor.ge.

All this effort is badly needed – Georgia’s agriculture may be, according to the World Bank in its report entitled A vision of the future of agriculture in Georgia by 2030, “on a path of structural transformation.” Yet, currently its productivity is “low and stagnant for most crop products” and “yields have not shown marked improvements in the last decade and are lower than world averages,” states this report, which explores how to scale-up Georgian agriculture. And this is before it is hit in the coming years by the “significant water resource challenges due to risks related from climate change,” and worsening soil degradation.

Yet, the World Bank believes that there are reasons for optimism in the agriculture and agro-processing industry, Georgia’s largest employer and responsible for around 12% of Georgian GDP (2020 figures) and 28% of the country’s exports. In the past decade, “the value of food production has increased sharply…and export-orientated producers and agri-businesses have successfully developed sustainable value-chains.” Still, it adds, Georgian farmers have to take fuller advantage of the technology available to help them.